Millard North blackout

Millard North students celebrate a score in the school's game with Omaha North on Thursday. Students planned a "blackout" event for the game.

Officials in the Millard Public Schools on Friday announced that they will ban full facial paint of all colors at sporting events after Millard North High School students drew criticism for “a blackout” event in the season-opener football game against Omaha North.

The criticism stems from Thursday night’s big football game between No. 1 Omaha North and No. 2 Millard North.

Prior to the game, Millard North students called for a “blackout” for the football season opener, a matchup of two perennial powerhouses.

Last school year, 44.4 percent of the students at Omaha North were black compared with 4.4 percent at Millard North, according to the Nebraska Department of Education.

Blackouts are a tradition at many high schools, and even Husker football games, aimed at turning the student section into a sea of black. Blackouts are usually reserved for big games.

The school has been having “blackout” themes for games for at least 10 years, Millard Communications Director Rebecca Kleeman said.

Some Millard North students showed up to the game with faces and bodies painted black.

It wasn’t long before Twitter erupted with critics.

“Can’t believe @MillardNorthHS students showed up in blackface to the football game against Omaha North,” one person tweeted.

Another commented, “Millard north needs to address this and the students who did it should be held responsible for their stupidity.”

Other comments were critical of those who saw racism in the tradition.

“Can’t believe people are actually starting up a #MillardNorthBlackface. It wasn’t done to be racist. Just kids painting for a blackout game.”

Another student, wrote: “This #millardnorthblackface is so dumb.”

Friday afternoon, Kleeman released a statement that the district will no longer allow “full facial paint.”

“After this concern was brought to our attention, we understand it and will address it,” she said.

Students can still paint black letters on their cheeks or eye-black under their eyes, but no longer can they use full facial paint of any color, she said.

In a letter sent to parents, Millard North Principal Brian Begley said students never intended to hurt anyone.

“This situation questioning our students’ use of body and face paint has been given meaning that it simply does not have, and I feel sad about that,” he wrote. “I know that this was never the intention.”

He noted his pride that the school has been recognized for several years as a “No Place for Hate” school by the Anti-Defamation League.

The school will continue to have various student themes related to football games and other extracurricular activities, he wrote.

Jim Tenopir, executive director of the Nebraska School Activities Association, said he didn’t know about the situation at the game.

He said there’s nothing in the association’s rules addressing paint.

“We’re at a point in time, as we have been for decades now, where there has to be a sensitivity involved anytime that you’re considering anything that has to do with gender, with race, with religion.”

He said NSAA would hope that districts “take the high ground” whenever there’s a chance of someone misinterpreting a celebration.

Omaha Public Schools officials sent a copy of Begley’s letter to Omaha North parents.

In their letter, OPS officials said that Friday morning, Millard officials reached out to OPS to explain that there were some concerns on social media about accusations of poor behavior at the game.

“Millard North explained that as part of a standing tradition at their high school, students use body and face paint to celebrate their first football game of the season,” they wrote.

“We wanted you to be aware that Millard North Principal Brian Begley spoke with Principal Gene Haynes about the social media concerns, and Mr. Begley expressed there was no ill-intention by the students of Millard North, and that Millard North will be modifying this long-time tradition to ensure that it does not inadvertently offend anyone in the future,” they said.

OPS spokeswoman Monique Farmer said the superintendents also talked.

“And there was an agreement to just get some communications out to families so they were aware this was in no way intentionally offensive, and this was a long-standing tradition with Millard North students,” Farmer said. “And we appreciated that.”

Contact the writer: 402-444-1077, joe.dejka@owh.com

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Joe covers education for The World-Herald, focusing on pre-kindergarten through high school. Phone: 402-444-1077.

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